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April 2020Vol. 21, No. 3Buying a Bracelet Will Not Prevent Child Abuse

Written by Jerry Milner and David Kelly

Designating a day or a month to draw attention to a cause has become a trend over the course of recent years. These days or months can be celebratory or somber. Depending on the intention and thoughtfulness of how such observances are designed, they can serve as important public service announcements that educate the public and inspire people to volunteer for a cause—or, yes, buy something to demonstrate their commitment. It's a strange merger of commerce and cause.

Rubber bracelets lead the way—one for each color of the rainbow, each representing something that somebody believes in or wishes to fight against. There are also days when we ask people to wear a certain color to demonstrate solidarity with an issue. These efforts make us feel good, and we congratulate ourselves for doing them. So, who or what, then, are we really helping?

Efforts such as these can lead to something valuable if they are accompanied with clear messaging of how to help or if they generate income that can go to making a difference in the lives of children and families. However, unless carefully constructed, such efforts can also lead to further demonization of poor families as well as the furthering of unhelpful narratives driven by emotion instead of data. These narratives can generate continued judgement and othering of vulnerable families and may impede the likelihood of moving our child welfare system in a new direction. 

There is no question that awareness days or months can spark temporary action. We have seen studies that show marked increases in visits to websites following events or campaigns. There is no question that funds can be raised and that donations are made. It would also seem likely that volunteerism may increase. These are all beneficial actions and results. But, ultimately, our goal should be long-term, sustainable behavior change, and we should be very specific about whose behavior we want to change and how.

We fear that all too often such efforts begin and end with a fashion statement.

We need to do more than draw attention if we want to prevent child abuse. We also need to do more than wear or do something symbolic that broadcasts a caring image. If we are serious about preventing abuse (and not just drawing attention to the tragedy and trauma or asking people to look for it), we must actually do something to make it less likely to occur.

The single most important thing we can do is strengthen families in ways that enable them to care for their children safely, before their circumstances become dire and maltreatment is a possibility. We need to focus on the root causes of maltreatment, which is often linked to a family's poverty, and address those root causes in our supports to families.

We have an abundance of information about what leaves families vulnerable to maltreatment and an abundance of information about how to make it less likely to occur. 

The behaviors we must seek to change are our own and those of elected officials who determine what resources we have available and how they can be used. To make child abuse less likely to occur, we need to invest in communities and invest in families. The writing is on the walls, and it is clear in our data and what we have learned through science. Yet, instead of making the necessary investments that will keep families and comminutes safe, resilient, and strong—and reduce the likelihood of so many of the vulnerabilities and challenges we work to address across systems—we remain stuck in the domain of stickers and bake sales. 

Think of the difference we can make in the lives of children and families if we organize around the idea that all families need support sometimes and then make it available in nonstigmatic ways—in places that are not associated with government agencies. Governments can and should be very meaningful financial contributors to such efforts, but they should not be the face of them. In order to make those financial contributions and  be serious about preventing child abuse and neglect, we need flexibility in our funding streams that will allow communities to provide needed supports to families before tragedy occurs.

We know that maltreatment most likely occurs when parental protective capacities are degraded or undeveloped. We know that lack of parenting experience and lack of knowledge and concrete supports leave parents more vulnerable to failing to adequately meet the needs of their children. We know that social isolation increases the likelihood that maltreatment may occur, and we know the stressors associated with poverty can also leave parents overwhelmed. Taken together, any combination of these factors can leave even the most loving parent vulnerable to poor decision-making, neglect, or worse.

Rather than short-term, episodic public attention to a cause de jour or cause of the month, we can make families and communities our constant cause; we can truly put them first. Putting them first means that we must address societal attitudes and values around parents and families who find themselves involved with the child welfare system—values that often lead us to devalue their worthiness of fundamental supports. Imagine if we changed our commemorative month celebrations and public displays from a negative prevention focus to a positive strengthening focus. When we can see families in a more humane way, we are more likely to prevent maltreatment by strengthening families' protective capacities than to persist in a child-rescue mentality. Making this change is not a 1-month-per-year activity. It is a full-time commitment. 

If we channel half the energy that goes into well-intentioned, temporary causes and awareness efforts into a full-time coordinated effort to create the conditions for strong and thriving families and communities where children are free from harm, we will no longer need bracelets to signal that something is important and that we care about it. If we put a modicum of the effort we put into treating trauma into preventing trauma, our impact would be profound.

Our actions speak louder and more authentically than anything we can possibly display on our wrists or social media. 

The question is whether we can break out of these patterns and ways of being. If we truly come together across causes, roles, and family-serving systems with a unified voice that demands it is time to address the root causes of family vulnerability and commit to unified action toward this common goal, we can move from drawing awareness to challenges to addressing them and from lip service to true service and from public displays to public action. 

To do so, we must be comfortable with causing discomfort and stand up for families. If we do not have the courage to do so, we will continue to accumulate drawers and boxes full of bracelets and other useless trinkets to remind us of our unwillingness to act.